Texans step up to rescue neighbors as Harvey hammers Houston

Liz Goodwin
Senior National Affairs Reporter

As a massive flood continues to bear down on the Houston area, Texans are using monster trucks, boats, jet skis and even canoes to help evacuate their neighbors still stuck in dangerous high water.

As of Monday afternoon, at least 5,500 people were in shelters and 2,000 rescues had been made in the Houston metro area — with an unknown number still stuck in flooded homes as Tropical Storm Harvey poured down more rain. That number is expected to rise, Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner said at a press conference Monday, with up to 30,000 people likely displaced.

Many of the thousands of Texans who have been rescued so far were saved by their own neighbors, who quickly showed up to some of the worst-hit neighborhoods in boats. Beau Rawlins, a resident of Galveston, brought his 14-foot flat bottom boat out on a truck to Dickinson, Tex., on Sunday after he saw that the local police department had put a call out on Facebook asking anyone who had a boat to help rescue. Rawlins estimates he and other volunteers with about 40 boats were doing the majority of the search and rescue on Sunday in the inundated town south of Houston.

“The entire coordination was just citizens — there was no government agencies directing us at all,” Rawlins said.

He stayed until 8:30 p.m. at night, using a spotlight to guide the boat through streets that had turned into rivers, calling out to the people in their homes. Rawlins estimates he rescued about 60 people, including children and the elderly. He guided himself to addresses that poured into the comments of his Facebook page, from frantic locals worried about their family and friends in the area.

Rescuers help trapped residents escape from rising floodwaters in Spring, Texas, on Monday. (Photo: Luke Sharrett/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

“We had a couple that was hollering out the window, and we pulled the boat literally up to the front door because the water was so high — only two feet of doorway was showing,” Rawlins said. The couple waded out of their front door holding their baby in chest-high water.

He was also able to rescue a dog for another evacuee who was worried he wouldn’t fit on a boat. “This guy was just so relieved because the only other choice was to let it drown,” he said.

Some Dickinson residents said they preferred to stay, since, oddly, the electricity was still working in homes that were flooded several feet. “Everybody’s power was still on, so they were sitting up there in the second levels watching TV and in the air conditioning,” Rawlins recalled.

On Monday, the city of Dickinson issued a mandatory evacuation order, and is turning the power off. Rawlins headed back to the area Monday afternoon to ensure that the residents who had decided to stay could get out now that they have no choice. The flooding has receded somewhat in the area, so Rawlins is using a lifted truck instead of a boat.

Beau Rawlins of Galveston helps rescue a child in a flooded home in the Dickinson area. (Photo: Courtesy of Beau Rawlins.)

Kenneth Yates, a 35-year-old pipe fitter from Galveston, rushed to the Dickinson area south of Houston on Sunday after he was contacted by a friend worried his family was stuck in their rapidly flooding home. Another good Samaritan ended up rescuing the family, but Yates stayed and fielded requests on Facebook to check on other people in the area.

In the end he estimates he rescued about 20 people Sunday, and was on his way back to the area Monday evening to help get more people out.

“I’ve got an infant and it looks like a toddler about to hop in the back seat of the truck,” Yates said, as the sounds of wailing drowned out his voice on the cellphone.

Yates said he didn’t have to think about whether he would haul his boat to the mainland and try to help.

“Well I was born and raised on the coast, and it’s kind of what you want to do when these situations are going on,” Yates said. “I’ve always been raised that you want to help everybody — as many people as you can.”

Jake Jones, 27, woke up to 10 missed calls from his parents on Sunday. They had abandoned the first story of their house in Dickinson and were huddled upstairs with several neighbors as the floodwaters continued to rise.

Jones put on his waders and loaded his jet ski on his truck but quickly realized his vehicle wasn’t high enough to make it down the flooded highway. A stranger with a bigger truck — also headed to help rescue — stopped and gave him and his jet ski a ride to a launch point closer to his parents’ house.

Curtis and Michelle Bertrand look for residents to rescue in Beaumont Place, Houston, on Monday. (Photo: Jonathan Bachman/Reuters)

Once in the water, Jones was waylaid by others seeking help, including an elderly couple and a woman with a child, whom he had to help one by one. “It took me a few hours to get there because every time I kept making progress to get there somebody else needed help, so I was loading up a few people on the way taking them to dry land,” Jones said.

It took him hours to reach his parents’ house through the flooded maze of his hometown.

“I know the town well, so I was going through people’s backyards on a jet ski and going through highways on it,” Jones said. “It was a little maze and it took a while to get all the way across Dickinson to where my parents are. I’ve never seen anything like that in my life.”

His parents’ neighbor showed up with a bigger boat to rescue the 12 people who had gathered on the second story. His parents are now staying at his grandmother’s house nearby, but he worries that could flood too if the rain continues. “They’ve had that house for almost 20 years, and it’s never flooded,” Jones said of his parents’ home. “Honestly, I didn’t think water would cover the whole neighborhood like that, it’s still unbelievable to me.”

Caitlyn Carter McDonald, a nurse from Galveston, and her husband and father took their fishing boat to the area to try to help as well, but found that their vessel was too deep to go into the affected neighborhoods. They stuck around to help people get out of the boats and onto dry land.

“It was so humbling in this crazy world right now to see so many people just jump in their boats and go help,” McDonald said. “People just left and went with boats, jet skis, rafts, canoes — anything they have.”

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